A common societal assumption is that anyone playing sports for a living must enjoy a life of pampered excess, in which the perks are many and the worries few. But in the vast majority of cases, there is a huge gap between this rose-tinted perception and the far more challenging reality.
Ryan Tatusko, a 26-year-old right-hander, is working hard to narrow that gap. The Indiana native launched his Backfield Diaries blog this past April, and he also maintains one of the most active Twitter accounts among Minor League Baseball players. Both endeavors were motivated by the simple desire to tell the story of what his job really entails.
"The general public doesn't have any idea what it's like," said Tatusko, speaking from his Indiana home. "If they hear that you play baseball for a living, then they think you're a multi-millionaire living in a mansion somewhere. It's easy to forget that a lot of athletes are struggling, worrying about what brand of peanut butter they can afford."
Tatusko, who spent last season split between Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse, has reached a point in his career where he can be choosy about his peanut butter purchases (he's a Jif man). But in the bigger picture, he still falls on the "struggling" end of the professional athlete continuum. Previous offseason occupations have included managing a Blockbuster video store, stocking shelves at Kohl's department store and that eternal pro athlete standby -- giving lessons and conducting clinics for local youth players.
"[Offseason job] interviews are usually pretty easy, once [the interviewer] finds out I play ball. Then the interview turns to what that's like and sharing stories," said Tatusko. "But you still get some weird looks. When I was working at Kohl's, I was with older retirees who were working in the mornings so they could get a discount. They'd ask me 'Why do you have this job? Why do you want it?' One of the reasons I started the blog was because I was hearing the same questions over and over again."
The Backfield Diaries answer these questions and more, with Tatusko delving into topics such as A Professional's View From the Stands, Learning in Pro Ball vs. College Ball and How To Get A Baseball at a Game. (Hint: yelling "Bro, ball me!" does not work.)
"Obviously there are already [Minor League] books out there, things like [pitcher Dirk Hayhurst's] The Bullpen Gospels, but no two people have the same story when it comes to how you get to the bigs and your experiences in Minor League Baseball," said Tatusko. "I want to spark people's interest in the things that they don't see."
An international ambassador
Tatusko had a prime opportunity to do just this during his most recent offseason gig. He recently arrived home after a two-month stint with the Bravos de Margarita of the Venezuelan Winter League, where he compiled a 6.10 ERA over seven starts. Margarita, an island off the coast of Venezuela, was a bit more sedate than the baseball environment on the nearby mainland.
"When we played in downtown Caracas it was in front of 20-, 30-, even 35,000 people. The crowds there were so loud, even just the baseline noise when nothing else was going on," said Tatusko. "The decibel levels were like a plane taking off. When I would try to describe the games to people, I'd say it's a mix between big-time college football and a European soccer match. But being amidst that type of craziness was beneficial. If I get the opportunity to pitch in the big leagues, then I might be a little more comfortable than I would be if I hadn't experienced that type of environment."
Another beneficial, albeit challenging, aspect of the Venezuelan experience was being thrust into a foreign culture.
"Dealing with the language barrier gave me a glimpse of what the Latin players in America must go through," said Tatusko. "But my teammates were immensely helpful. They'd go to the mall with [the American players], help us order food and call taxis."
Such efforts went beyond mere hospitality. Ballplayer safety was a paramount concern in Venezuela, an issue that received wide publicity after the November kidnapping of Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos in Caracas. Tatusko took to his blog to give his on-the-ground perspective, and the resulting effort (entitled LVBP Security and Safety) was his most widely read yet. In the post, Tatusko described the relative serenity of Margarita Island, security efforts implemented by the club's personnel while on the road and group safety strategies employed by himself and his fellow "gringo" teammates.
"As soon as the [Ramos] kidnapping happened, I immediately started getting questions about it on Facebook and Twitter," he said. "So I decided to write about it, so that I could shed some light on how safe it really was."
In addition to honing his baseball skills while immersed in foreign culture, playing in Venezuela gave Tatusko a nice source of offseason income. Nice enough, in fact, that he doesn't have to find this year's equivalent of stocking shelves or renting out videos.
"It's kind of nice not to need to get a job. I'm giving my body about a month off, and after that I'll be right back in the training facility getting ready for Spring Training and the 2012 season," he said.
And so it will begin again, another unpredictable six-month odyssey through the Minor (and hopefully, Major) League landscape. No matter how it all plays out, it'll certainly give Tatusko something to write about.
"I'd love to write a book some day. And even if no big book deal gets done, at least I'll have written something for myself," he said. "It'll be something my kids and grandkids can read, chuckling over the funny stories like 'I didn't know Grandpa did that!'"